I’ve described Microsoft Lync as the forgotten Office server because it sits in the shadow of the enormous success of its stable mates, SharePoint and Exchange Server. But this week, Lync is having a coming out party in the form of its first-ever Lync Conference. And with broader availability thanks to its bundling in Office 365, Lync is poised to join Exchange and SharePoint in the upper echelon of Microsoft’s productivity solutions.
According to Lync Marketing General Manager Giovanni Mezgec, 90 of the Fortune 100 companies have adopted Lync in some capacity, and Microsoft just registered its 5 millionth telephony seat, up from 3 million just 14 months ago. Lync was basically a brand-new product in its 2010 version—previously, the product was called Office Communicator—one that expands on the unified communications foundation of its predecessor by offering full PBX replacement capabilities.
As important, perhaps, the partner ecosystem is starting to embrace Lync as well. Microsoft counts over 1,000 partners, or one new partner every day since Lync 2010 was first launched. The partner bit is also interesting because it’s mostly on-premises and private cloud deployments, and not , which I had assumed was the volume pipeline for Lync. And it’s changed since the switchover from Office Communicator—which was largely about hardware reselling—to Lync, which has seen big pickup with traditional Microsoft partners as well as traditional VOIP firms.
OK, so there’s your momentum angle. But what I’m really concerned with is the product itself. And in 2013 guise, Lync isn’t just the best yet. It’s going to be getting better all year.
It starts with a bit of news that I find inevitable but troubling: Lync is now part of the Skype division in Microsoft, not Office. Mezgec positioned this as a win, with Microsoft combining two obviously complementary but separate products, where Skype is for consumers and Lync is for businesses. I’d rather see Skype fall under Office, frankly, and I can only assume that Skype’s existence as an essentially independent business within Microsoft was part of the reason the $8.5 billion deal was consummated.
(That said, I can think of 8.5 billion other reasons why this should never have happened: Thus far, Skype has continued to operate as if it weren’t even part of Microsoft, and this past week it actually delivered new features for iOS and Android versions of Skype that won’t appear on Windows for months. This is inexcusable.)
My prejudices against Skype aside, aligning the development of Skype and Lync does make plenty of sense, and it matches up nicely with the industry trends Mezgec say guided this decision. “The workplace is changing,” he said. “People want a choice of devices, not only one on their desk, but at home on PCs, phones, and tablets. They want these communications experiences across all of those devices, and they expect to use the same technologies at work that they get at home.”
On that note, Skype and Lync will be coming together in ways that make sense. Skype will continue to use its terrible, frenetic Skype-developed user interface, while Lync will retain its beautiful, flat and matte, Office 2013–style UI. Under the covers, however, Lync will be updated to support various Skype technologies, similar to how you can use federation to access Windows Live Messenger contacts through Lync today.
This addition of Skype features to the Lync 2013 client will begin with IM and presence first, and Mezgec says they will deliver that by the end of Microsoft’s fiscal year, which is the end of June 2013. Video chat capabilities will be added by the end of the next fiscal year (June 2014). So you’ll be able to add a Skype contact to Lync and begin communicating as you would with other contacts.
Lync will also see some exciting moves on the mobile front in 2013. There’s a new Windows 8/RT app available already (what we used to call a Metro-style app), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Lync 2013 apps for Windows Phone 8, iOS (iPhone and iPad), and Android are all coming this year, although the Android one will trail the others by a bit: Expect the others in March/April timeframe with Android perhaps a month or two later. These mobile apps will all support VoIP and video over IP. And the iPad version can be used to view Lync-based shared desktop and application content.
(Microsoft also provides a fairly excellent web client for Lync 2013 that has virtually all of the functionality of the full desktop client. All it’s missing is the ability to schedule a meeting and initiate a new call. It requires any modern HTML5-based browser, including Safari on Mac.)
In keeping with Microsoft’s new servicing schedule, Lync Online will be updated quarterly and the on-premises Lync Server will be updated a year from now, in Q2 2014. The next 18 months will also see Enterprise Voice in the Cloud—enterprise voice support—added to Lync Online and Lync Meetings (basically the next version of Live Meeting) added to both Lync Online and the next version of Lync Server.
As a fan and user of Lync, I’m personally most interested in the Skype federation features, since the Skype client is so awful. But maybe the good folks responsible for Lync can influence Skype in a positive way and get them to abandon their poorly designed applications. Certainly, the combination of Lync with the popular Skype service is something amazing to celebrate, regardless. I can’t wait.